In our previous blog, we covered four health myths perpetuated by the food industry via their marketing of certain foods. And believe it or not, there are still more! In this blog, we’ll share the branding and marketing hacks used by the food industry to increase their payout, while not necessarily benefiting your health.
1. The Classic Grocery Store Layout
There’s one food industry hack you can find no matter where you are. It’s been used for decades, and it’s practiced by grocery stores across the country: the quintessential grocery store layout.
You may have experienced frustration when you go to a new grocery store and struggle to find, say, the laundry detergent you use. But chances are, you could intuitively guess where the meat, produce, and dairy were—even if you had never been in that store before.
That’s because nearly all grocery stores use a similar layout where the meat and dairy is along the far back wall of the store, the produce section is on one side, and the frozen section is on the other. In the middle are the rows of various packaged foods.
Why does this matter, and what constitutes this as a “trick?”
Your staple items are not conveniently located near the entrance of the store for a reason—you have to lap the store in order to check off the basics on your list (eggs, milk, veggies, etc.) The more you traverse the store, the more likely it is you will add additional items to your cart (so-called “impulse purchases”).
Grocery stores know this and have intentionally made their layout less convenient to increase the likelihood that you’ll stock your cart and end up buying more, even if you were just doing a quick grocery run.
You can see the map below from Mealime for an example of this necessities-on-the-perimeter layout. Not all grocery stores are exactly the same, but they’ll generally share these characteristics. Being aware of this food industry trick can help you stay on track at the grocery store and stick to the aisles and sections you need!
2. “All Natural” Is a Loose Term
You’ll see labels like “all natural” or “all real fruit” on all varieties of foods. When you see options like this, however, it’s important to check the ingredients; there are multiple instances of these claims coming up as false.
For example, a variety of peanut butters are labeled “natural.” Many brands offer a natural option, as opposed to the regular option that includes rapeseed oil or palm oil and added sugar. The ‘natural’ branding may lead you to think that this option doesn’t have the extra sugar or oil, but unfortunately, that is generally not the case (remember, sugar and oil are natural). The product might have less sugar added, or a different kind of oil substituted, but it isn’t simply ground up peanuts as you might expect.
If you’re opting for a truly natural peanut butter because you want a lower sugar content or you want to avoid palm oil, then you should check the label—”all natural” can be misleading. You’ll want to look for the ingredients of only peanuts! When looking at other foods labeled “all natural” you’ll want to keep this in mind as well: the ingredient list, not the branding, determines if a food is what you expect. Or, you can grind your own peanut butter at stores that have grinding machines—check to see if this option is available at a store near you.
The claim of “real fruit” brings up similar concerns. In 2012, a mother purchased strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups for her kids which claimed to include “real fruit,” but when she checked the ingredient list, the only resemblance to fruit was pear concentrate. She ended up taking the company to court for their misleading branding; the outcome now requires companies to list the percentage of fruit in the food itself. You’ll see similar listings on snack bars, gummies, and more. If you want to increase your or your family’s fruit intake, eat the real fruit (from the produce section) and stay away from the processed options.
3. Heart Healthy & Diabetes Friendly(ish)
You may have seen labels of support from the AHA (American Heart Association) or “Diabetes Friendly” branding on certain packaged foods. Naturally, this would make you think that these foods are healthy options for your heart health or sugar intake; unfortunately, this is not always the case.
For the most part, the AHA provides robust guidelines to deem a food heart healthy—you can read about them here. What gets tricky is how some food companies will highlight how a food meets some of the requirements, but disregards how it fails in others.
For instance, you may have seen a heartwarming commercial with an older couple eating some Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal for breakfast because it’s good for their heart. On the front of the box is a big red heart which says, “Heart Healthy” for its fiber content aligned with AHA recommendations. However, this doesn’t show the whole picture—a serving of this oatmeal also has 12 grams of sugar, which does not align with the AHA recommendations.
This doesn’t mean you should never have a warm bowl of Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal, but it does mean you should not take branding and labels at face value, particularly if you have specific health concerns. If you struggle with sugar levels and diabetes, you should similarly be wary of any claims that foods—particularly cereals—are diabetes friendly. Check the nutrition label to get the full picture and decide for yourself! As a pre-diabetic, even the thought of Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal will send my glucose monitor singing so I prefer plain oatmeal with some fruit and stevia or honey for the extra kick.
If you want tips on reading nutrition labels, you can check out our blog here for a full guide.
Moral of the story: nutrition labels show the full picture of how healthy a food is; don’t forget to check them! Keep these food industry hacks in mind as you’re at the grocery store or ordering your groceries online. Knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is the power to make the best choices for your health!